Like many New York hockey fans, I too was a Rangers fan once. I grew up on The Island, and despite the fact that we now had our own team, loyalty was loyalty. I remember watching the playoffs as a 12 year old in the spring of 1975 when the upstarts from the Island took on and upset the Rangers.
My soon-to-be uncle had been singing the praises of this "new" team, and he was right, they had spirit. But I was a fan of the Rangers, and that was just the way it was going to be. Then, near the start of the 75-76 season, Rangers management did the unthinkable. I had always loved the goaltenders, I think it was the cool equipment and the masks that drew me in. I'm sure that's what made me a goaltender when I started playing. As a Rangers fan, I loved Eddie Giacomin. I had a poster of the star goalies in the league in my bedroom, and Eddie was featured prominently. When the Rangers sent Eddie to Detroit, they broke my heart. I still remember taking a solitary walk down the street to try and wrap my head around how they could have done such a thing. I was not very sophisticated in the business side of sports, and free agency wasn't really in my vocabulary at the time, so I didn't understand how a team could part ways with a player for seemingly no reason. I believed that once you were on a team, you stayed there until you retired from the game. What were kids supposed to do with all those #1 jerseys now???
The longer I walked, the angrier I got. By the time I returned to my house, I had made a pact with myself - I would never root for the Rangers again. I hated them for what they did to me by trading my favorite player. I swore I would never forget it, and would never forgive them. When the Red Wings played the Rangers at MSG just a few days after the trade, I began my new life of hating the Rangers, and I'm proud to say I am still living that life. I root for whatever team is playing them, and I am confident I will do so for the rest of my days.
Back to the 70's, and I started listening to my uncle more and more. My youngest brother hadn't yet formed a bond with the Rangers, and fell right in line with these Islanders, so we started paying attention to them. There was something about the way they played the game that hooked me. And the goalies... Glenn "Chico" Resch and "Battlin' Billy" Smith. They were my favorite players on the team. I loved Chico's intellect and Smitty's fierce competitiveness. Together they formed a tremendously solid tandem. Coach Arbour was a true believer in the platoon system, swapping one for the other on almost a nightly basis. And it worked for them, up to a point.
As history shows, they made the playoffs every year from '75 into the '90's, but from '75 through '79 they just couldn't take that next step to glory. In '75, '76, and '77 they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but it was the loss in '78 to the Maple Leafs that angered me the most. I know, a "true Islanders fan" HAS to say the loss in '79 to the hated Rangers HAS to be the most devastating loss they suffered, but the loss to the Leafs was far more devastating to me because of the way they lost. They had drafted Mike Bossy after 14 other teams passed on him because they said, "all he can do is score goals." Ummm... I'm not a genius, at least not certified or anything, but last time I looked, scoring goals was pretty important in this game. But that's just me, and I thank my lucky stars for a real genius like Bill Torrey who really knew what he was doing.
They had paired this perennial 50 goal scorer with the likes of Bryan Trottier; hands down one of, if not THE, best two-way centers the game has ever seen; and Clark "Jethro" Gillies, who was in that era a true mountain of a man whose hands were just as good on his stick as they were at punching the lights out of anyone else's tough guys. And everyone had at least one of them back then. The 1978 Toronto Maple Leafs had plenty of them, most notably, Dave "Tiger" Williams. Williams was one of those guys you wanted to see pummeled every time he stepped onto the ice. He was the consummate agitator. Newer fans can think of Cal Clutterbuck, but meaner and less talented ( I sure hope Tiger doesn't read this blog).
Sure the Leafs had Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming, but they were no match for the Islanders. Except... there was a chink in the Islanders' armor. The Montreal Canadiens had beaten them the previous two playoffs because Montreal was a better team. The Islanders gave them a run for their money, but they simply couldn't match up with Montreal's talent and experience. I fully expected to be watching yet another semi-final showdown with Les Habitants after my Islanders dispatched the Leafs, but there was that chink in the armor. Those Islanders were susceptible to the grinding, rough, elbows in your face kind of hockey the Leafs played. They beat the Islanders that year because they BEAT the Islanders. They physically beat my team down. The series went seven games only because the Leafs truly couldn't match the Islanders' talent. But when it came down to toughness, It still saddens me to admit that my boys just weren't tough enough.
They relied so heavily on the Bossy-Trottier-Gillies line to carry them that the Leafs focused all their pounding, and grabbing, and tripping, and elbowing on that trio. Plus, Mike Palmateer had one heck of a series. The Islanders were able to win two overtime thrillers; with Mike Bossy (from the seat of his pants) and Bob "Mr. Islander" (more aptly "Mr. Overtime Islander") netting the winners. But game seven was a 1-1 bare knuckle brawl that also went to overtime. I still remember the nervous feeling in my stomach.
Then Lanny McDonald... By all accounts one of the true gentlemen of the game, but I hated him for a very long time after that goal. The Islanders didn't lose because of Lanny McDonald, they lost because they had been physically assaulted and they had almost no answer for how to play that type of game.
Then, yes, there were the hated Rangers in '79. Anyone who was paying any attention at all leading up to that semi-final series knew that the Rangers were riding an extremely hot John Davidson in goal, and after the first period of game 1 of that series I knew my Isles were in trouble. They threw everything at Davidson, and somehow he stopped it. And he kept right on playing just like that all the way through game 6. I think the platoon system with the goaltenders that the Isles employed hurt them, but it was the brick wall in the form of John Davidson that killed them. I wondered then if that was the last shot my Islanders would ever get at glory.
They had finally surpassed the Canadiens and finished the regular season as the best team in the league. They won 51 games, and lost only 15. They were a juggernaut. But they were a juggernaught that relied far too much on that super trio of Bossy, Trottier, and Gillies. When those three couldn't crush Davidson, the air went out of the team.
Championship teams, especially those that become dynasties, always point back to losing as being a necessary ingredient to victory. It seems counter-intuitive, but it's true. In order to truly appreciate victory, and in order to achieve greatness, you have to know the bitter taste of defeat. In 1980, and for the subsequent 3 years, the Islanders had had quite enough of that taste.
Enter Butchie, a guy who never seems to get the credit he deserves for being the player he was. He was never going to be Bryan Trottier, but he was a grinder, and a damn talented one at that. Throw in a couple other puzzle pieces like Duane Sutter, Dave Langevin, Gord Lane, Wayne Merrick, and Ken Morrow, and these Islander could play any way you wanted to play.
Yes, they won the Stanley Cup by beating the Flyers in the Finals, but that championship was won in the quarter-final round against the Bruins. The Bruins had clearly watched the Maple Leafs series from '78 and they went after the Isles in exactly the same way. But the Bruins found themselves facing an Islanders team that simply would not back down. God bless Terry O'Reilly for his fortitude. He understood his job in that series was to intimidate the Islanders, and he decided the best way to do that was to take on the Islanders' Mountain Man. History books and YouTube videos will show you how that turned out. Gillies beat O'Reilly like no man should have to get beaten in a sport that isn't boxing. O'Reilly looked like Frankenstein's Monster by the time the Isles were celebrating their series clinching win.
These Islanders would not be intimidated. They had been pushed around for too long, and they put a stop to it for good in that series. No one tried to beat them that way again. Secondary scoring forced teams to have to pay attention to more than just the 'Trio Grande,' and that allowed the number one line the freedom they needed to start lighting it up. And that's exactly what they did; for 4 years they lit teams up. No one in the league could compete with them, not even Gretzky's Oilers. The '83 New York Islanders was the greatest team in the expansion era of the NHL, and I really don't care what NHL.com has to say with their poll. Nineteen straight playoff series wins. Go ahead and tell me who is ever going to even come close to matching or eclipsing that mark.
And while we're at it, that '84 series was a fix to keep the Islanders from winning a fifth straight Cup. I'm not going to say the Islanders would have won if the series was played in the "normal" format of 2-2-1-1-1, but I know in my heart that the Islanders would have won game 5 if it was played on Long Island, like it should have been. Tell me how it is that the League just changes the format for the Final without saying a word about it, then goes right back to the old format the next year?
Okay, I'm off the soapbox. So that's why I'm an Islanders fan - because the Rangers drove me away; because the Montreal Canadiens and Lanny McDonald broke my heart; because the taste of defeat is truly as bitter as it sounds; because the euphoria of victory is as glorious a feeling as one can imagine; and because I got to live it.
Thank you to the New York Islanders for giving me so many great memories. I can't wait to see what happens next...